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Steven Bearlstein, a student assistant, resolves books in the Walnut Creek Library in downtown Walnut Creek, Calif., on Friday, May 9, 2014. Starting July 1, Walnut Creek libraries will be open 12 fewer hours a week due to budget cuts. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

WALNUT CREEK -- Soon there will be fewer children's story times, less drop-in homework help for students and less opportunity for readers to peruse the stacks at the city's two libraries.

The Walnut Creek City Council made the decision Tuesday to cut library hours from 56 to 44 hours a week, starting July 1. This means that besides Sundays, the libraries on Oak Grove Road and North Broadway will be closed another full day each week. The libraries will also close earlier on other days.

The exact schedule has not been worked out, but it's clear that additional closures at Contra Costa County's busiest libraries will likely mean staffing cuts and less access to cherished services for patrons.

"What we know is that citizens in Walnut Creek love their libraries, and 75 percent (of them) have library cards," said Jessica Hudson, librarian for Contra Costa County Library. "We understand the choices the council had to make with a limited amount of money, and we are sad, but we want to give the most and best service we can. We are going to do what we can to mitigate the effect on the public."

On Tuesday, the Walnut Creek City Council committed to paying $234,000 for library hours for two years. The county pays for 35 hours a week at each of its 26 libraries; if a city wants more than 35 hours of weekly open time at its libraries, that city must pay for the additional hours.

For years, a parcel tax known as Measure Q paid for an additional 21 hours a week at Walnut Creek's two libraries. But that tax expired in 2010, and the additional hours were funded through savings of the tax when the downtown library was under construction and not yet open. That money will soon run out, and with a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, some Walnut Creek leaders said the city can't afford to keep the library hours at the same level.

Still, the decision left council members and others disappointed.

"We feel that there has never been an honest discussion on library hours and how to fund them, not just in this budget cycle but into the future," said Kristin Anderson, executive director of the Walnut Creek Library Foundation. "The city has known (for years) that Measure Q was going to be gone."

This comes only four years after Walnut Creek opened its new $40 million downtown library and parking garage.

"Why would you spend all of that money on a new library when funding for existing services was in peril?" wrote Matt Sullivan in a letter to the City Council. "I think you should reexamine the issue and insure you can find the money to fully fund both Walnut Creek libraries."

Ygnacio Valley Library in Walnut Creek. (Darren M. Antonovich)
Ygnacio Valley Library in Walnut Creek. (Darren M. Antonovich)

Some residents have speculated the closures have to do with a larger political strategy by some in Walnut Creek to show a need for a sales tax increase, to pay for city services such as library hours.

Walnut Creek is not the only Contra Costa city bracing for changes in library hours come July. Because of budget woes in Antioch, that city's library will be open only 28 hours a week. The city can't afford to pay for the maintenance and operations costs the county requires, Hudson said.

The cutback in hours shouldn't affect the county library's balanced budget, but it will likely affect staffing levels. Each Walnut Creek library will lose two staffers due to the loss of hours, but those employees could be put into other open positions, Hudson said. It's something that will be worked out with the library system's labor unions, she said.

Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.